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Linda Rivera, Hospitalized After Eating Nestl&#233; Cookie Dough, Tries to Stay Alive

Richard Rivera kisses his wife LInda Rivera, 57, after wiping her face at Kidred Hospital in Las Vegas since May, when she has been hosptialized since May after she ate raw cookie dough that was contaminated with E. Coli.
Richard Rivera kisses his wife LInda Rivera, 57, after wiping her face at Kidred Hospital in Las Vegas since May, when she has been hosptialized since May after she ate raw cookie dough that was contaminated with E. Coli. (Marlene Karas)

Among the pathogens that can harm human health, E. coli O157:H7 is one of the most lethal, and there is no known cure. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates about 70,000 people are infected annually with E. coli O157:H7, but the actual number is unknown because many illnesses go unreported.

"People just don't really understand how horrible food-borne illness is," said William Marler, a prominent Seattle-based food-safety lawyer who is representing the Rivera family and 23 other victims in the cookie dough outbreak. "They think food-borne illness is a tummy ache and diarrhea."

E. coli O157:H7 is typically associated with beef because the bacteria lives in the intestines of cows, goats and other ruminants. But in recent years, the bacteria has turned up in unexpected places, such as spinach and other leafy greens, and, now, cookie dough.

Linda Rivera was a high school teacher's aide who was always in motion, cheering her sons at their soccer games and wrestling and track meets, ferrying her twin teenage boys across town to playing fields and skate parks. Now she struggles to hold up her head. Her communication is reduced to shaky hand signals; she turns her right thumb up or down slightly in answer to her husband's questions.

Richard Rivera's eyes well up when he contrasts the exhausted, gaunt woman lying askew in the hospital bed with the bubbly blonde he married 12 years ago. It was a second marriage for both, and they each brought three children to the union. "We called ourselves the Brady Bunch," he said.

A bearish man in sneakers, shorts and a baseball cap, he spends his days and nights in Room 519, rubbing Linda's feet, dabbing her eyes with a cool washcloth and trying to spoon-feed her medication. He sleeps fitfully in a chair by her bed.

He holds up both sides of the conversation.

"Are you hot?" he asked Friday. "Give me a thumbs up if you're hot." He watched as Linda shakily turned her right thumb upward. "Okay, baby, do you want the blanket off your leg? Linda, you're turning red. Are you breathing? Okay, I just wanted to make sure."

Linda Rivera is so weak, she can't suck on a straw long enough to draw liquid out of a cup. She is being fed nutrients intravenously.

Once the CDC made the link between the outbreak of E. coli illness and Nestlé cookie dough in June, Nestlé immediately recalled about 3.6 million packages at a cost of $30 million to $50 million, according to Laurie McDonald, a company spokeswoman.

The company and FDA investigators focused on Nestlé's Danville, Va., plant, which produces all its refrigerated cookie dough. E. coli O157:H7 was not found in the plant or on equipment but was detected among the samples of dough that Nestlé routinely sets aside for analysis. However, the contaminated dough had a different genetic fingerprint than the strain that caused the national outbreak, puzzling company officials.

In consultation with the FDA, Nestlé bought new supplies of flour, eggs and margarine and restarted production July 7, McDonald said. The revived product, which is packaged with a "New Batch" label and a prominent warning against eating raw cookie dough, went on sale last week. It is too early to track sales, McDonald said.

Nestlé "is aware of Mrs. Rivera's illness and our thoughts and prayers are with her and her family," McDonald said. She said the company has been in contact with the Rivera family through Marler and "we have offered support to the family." She declined to elaborate.

Neither Richard Rivera nor Marler would say whether Nestlé has made any payments. Linda Rivera has not filed a lawsuit against Nestlé, although three of Marler's clients have.

In the three months since she fell ill, Linda Rivera missed her 18-year-old son J.J.'s high school graduation. She missed Mother's Day. Her stepsister unexpectedly died last week, but Richard hasn't told Linda, not wanting to add to her stress.

When friends or family relieve him from his post inside Room 519, Richard stands in the 107-degree heat outside the hospital and takes deep drags on Marlboro Lights. At twilight Friday, one of those friends, Greg Van Houten, joined him on the sidewalk.

"What do you think, Greg?" Richard asked.

"I think she's dying," Van Houten said.

Richard nodded. His eyes filled with tears.

Moments passed. The two men went back inside the air-conditioned hospital. In Linda's room, her husband, her sons, neighbors and friends formed a small circle around her bed. In yellow hospital gowns and face masks, they clasped hands and prayed for her return to health.

"You made it this far -- don't give up on us, Mom," said Tony, one of her 17-year-old twin boys, who sniffled beneath his face mask. "You've done everything for me in my life."

Since May, there have been several moments when Richard thought he might lose his wife. Each time, she rebounded, and then relapsed. "That's how it's been through this whole thing," he said. "You feel like you're taking five steps forward and then three steps backward."

He is hoping for another, final rebound.

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